Where did the idea come from – the central quest that drives the whole thing?
It’s a weird one. I made another film, [Death] which is now called Afterdeath, and travelled all around the place to a load of film festivals with it. I picked up a little flip camera, the handheld ones, and I was filming little pieces to camera on my own, just mucking about at different places – at Sundance, in Denmark – which was great fun. Eventually I got back to England and realised that the subtext of the things I was doing was all the same. I thought that was interesting, and put them down into FinalCutPro in my edit, and put them into little sections. Some of them have become the vlogs of the film. Then I thought that I had a film here without knowing it. My pitch when I started this was “I have made a film by accident”.
I’ve always wanted to write with other people. I don’t always want to work on my own. I got in contact with a few other screenwriter friends and said I had a great idea, I’d started filming it, did they want to help? And they all said no. I chose people who were blogging that they were fed up that there were no opportunities, no one ever wanted to do anything, so I targeted all those people – and they all said no. That was disheartening.
So I sat down and thought who else I knew, and phoned a friend of mine, Simon Birks. He said, “Great, send it over”. I did, and he started writing actual scenes, which was great because although I had written the story, I didn’t have an actual script. Between us, four weeks later, we’d written a whole feature film. It appeared very quickly once I decided we were going to sit down and write it.
The final final cut is very similar to the first draft of the script, which always feels good, because you know you didn’t deviate too much.
Each one was individual. When we were writing the film, I had already been in touch with [Monty Python star] Carol Cleveland. The part of David’s mum was written with Carol in mind, and I sent her an early draft of the script. She came up to London and we went through it, making it very friendly for her as an actress, which really helped, as it meant she could really get her mind around the role.
With Sophie Aldred, the only change she made was she didn’t like the name of the character – she was originally called Chelsea. She said it was too chavvy, so we changed it to Angela, which was less chavvy.
I’ve known Tom Price for a long time; I met him when he was only eighteen and he was doing stand-up. You meet these actors and log them away in your brain, thinking one day you’ll have a role for them. When I wrote the film, I knew that grown-up Simon was going to be Tom Price; it’s a fairly small part, only one scene, and as soon as I wrote it I sent it over to him. I think he tweaked one line and that was it.
Simon Jones was very much the same. I had this idea that the main character had to go and meet a shady character, and we wanted someone from British sci-fi. At one point we talked about getting Tom Baker to it, which would have been great but he was too expensive. Simon was in New York, and the whole time we were shooting he was there doing a show. I’ve got a friend in New York and the idea was I’d fly over and we’d have a second unit and shoot in New York but it was getting overly complicated. But then Simon was back in the UK for three or four weeks, and we changed the whole schedule, and filmed it while he was here. We filmed it up in Hampstead; it was a really lovely day.
Chase Masterson was great fun: I met her at the Sci-Fi Weekender in Wales in March; I had written to her months earlier to see if she was free for a day’s shooting, but she wasn’t because she was in America. I think we’d both sort of forgotten about it, but then I saw she was there, and I said, “We’ve still got one more day’s shoot to film. Are you available?” She said yes, and did a cameo for us, which was fantastic.
How long did the production take?
The first proper day’s shooting was 27 September 2012; we had twenty-four days shooting, but a lot of those, like with Simon Jones, was only three hours. The stuff where I’m on the train I shot in New York state last year in July, and some of the more vloggy bits have been around for a while. All the stuff on the Danish island were shot in 2009, which was knocking around in my edit bank.
The guy playing Alien from Arcturus, Mark W. Gray, I directed him by Skype, because I couldn’t afford to go to LA. He’s got a 7D of his own which he then sent over via WeTransfer. We were never in the same continent at the same time.
It’s a wide shot, then a tight shot then a reverse, and that’s it, so I planned it for him. I passed the footage to our VFX guy, Kenny, and drew a little picture for him of what I wanted. We’d already designed the starshroom, so we dropped that in and brought it to life. All of the movements were put in during post.
These things take a while but we shot the stuff in plenty of time. One of the first things I shot, a year ago, was the scene where David meets Simon and the starshroom comes out of the sky. The VFX guy had six months to work on it.
It was a nightmare of having that Sword of Damocles of the 3rd May, hanging over me the whole time. It had to be finished for that date [Sci-Fi London]. Most filmmakers don’t have a specific date.
The Search for Simon was shown at the Sci-Fi Film Festival, but this is the premiere of the final version. This has never been shown.
Picture-wise, not a lot. But every single piece of sound has changed. It’s an entire remix and an entire different grade. It looks different and sounds different and a lot of the music has been moved around. Virtually all of the dialogue has been re-recorded, so most of the film is now ADR, which is apparent in some places, but not in others. All the voiceovers have changed. If it was a radio play, it’d be entirely different. It’s the Director’s Cut – a couple of scenes got cut out, and scenes went back in. It is a different experience.
What have you learned from this?
Every project should be an education, or what’s the point? Having made two very low budget features in two years, and a low budget full length music video, I’ve learned I don’t want to do any more low budget projects. The next one has to have a reasonable budget; it’s hundreds of hours of work with no remuneration. But hopefully we can sell this film and get some recuperation.
It’s unique, unlike any other film you’re going to see. There are a lot of genre films which are exactly the same, and directors directing stuff which is exactly the same. If you want to go and see a film where the director has a strong original voice then there isn’t anything like this. No one is making films that have their thumbprint on it except me; that’s what I feel about it. Let’s have a sci-fi comedy with some serious drama in it as well, because no one’s doing anything like that. If we don’t try new things, we’ll get bored with the old things, and there’ll be nothing to replace them.
The Search for Simon is showing on 1 October as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Thanks to Louise Rivers for her help in setting up this interview.